There’s a lot less wrong with the rules governing housing allowances for MLAs from outside Halifax than reporters who rarely stray beyond the Armdale Rotary would have you believe. And there’s a lot less than saintly devotion to cost control in Speaker Gordie Gosse’s handling of the issue.
Richmond MLA Michel Samson’s living arrangements are full of the sort of ambiguities that professional couples face in the real world of life and work. He represents a constituency more than 300 kilometres from Halifax. To do his job properly requires him to spend significant amounts of time in both places. His wife, the lawyer Claudine Bardsley-Samson, works as manager of industrial relations for Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax. The couple have a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter who presumably needs to be settled in pre-school or day care.
Unless you believe Claudine should abandon her profession for a life of barefoot pregnancies in an Arichat kitchen, their situation requires some juggling. And the juggling the Samsons settled on was for Michel to spend more nights in Halifax than is typical for an MLA representing a faraway constituency. He retains his house in Arichat, but the family also rented a house in Halifax, with the MLAs’ housing allowance covering about half the rent.
When a CBC reporter, sensing a local version of the Mike Duffy scandal, put a series of aggressive questions to Samson about his living arrangements, the MLA asked the Legislature’s Conflict-of-Interest Commissioner and the House Speaker to review whether his housing expenses conformed to the rules.
The conflict commissioner, retired Supreme Court Justice Merlin Nunn, made short shrift of the reporter’s suspicions. In a letter you can find at the end of this post, he concluded there was nothing improper in Samson’s reimbursement for the Halifax dwelling. Nunn also directed a few pungent remarks at the CBC reporter who raised the issue:
[I]t is vitally important that our elected members are not open to public denouncement on the whim of a media member who, without first pursuing the necessary facts, raises a suspicion which is akin to serious issues in one or more other jurisdictions, knowing it will be scandal and embarrassment to the person involved.
We need the best members we can get and we must not put in their way a fear of baseless scandal and embarrassment brought on by immature and sensational reporting. Our elected members give up a great deal to serve the people of this province and should not be dishonoured to the public without a sound basis of facts to support the matter or claim being made.
Speaker Gosse somehow reached the opposite conclusion. He cut off Samson’s housing compensation. Gosse won’t explain the reasons, and we have only Samson’s report that Gosse counted (or miscounted) the number of nights the MLA slept in the Arichat home he owns and speculated about the living arrangements of the MLA’s wife and daughter, factors Justice Nunn correctly deemed irrelevant.
If this is true, Gosse was making things up as he went along, applying rules that do not exist and flagrantly sexist assumptions about the nature of marital-work tradeoffs.
Why might he do that?
Gosse is a New Democrat who faces a tough re-election fight after his Cape Breton Nova riding was lumped in with traditionally Liberal Cape Breton South. Samson faces a similar problem. His tiny protected Acadian riding of Richmond, which he won five times by margins ranging from 47 to 55 percent, disappeared in the recent redistricting. Richmond County is now combined with paper mill town of Port Hawkesbury, where the NDP has some strength (having spent hundreds of millions to revive the bankrupt mill). A prolonged controversy about whether Samson lives in the riding he represents could conceivably tip the scales.
Samson objected to Gosse’s ruling, purporting to find several errors in Gosse’s review of the facts. The speaker responded by referring the issue to Auditor General Jacques Lapointe.
Sounds fair, right? Until you discover that Gosse had already consulted Lapointe, giving him a perhaps skewed account of the facts, and obtaining his informal concurrence. In short, having found Samson guilty based on rules and tests that do not exist, Gosse had a choice of referring the matter to the Conflict Commissioner (who he knew agreed with Samson) or the AG (who had already publicly agreed with Gosse, and who revels in scolding elected officials for their moral failings, real and exaggerated). He chose Lapointe.
When the MLAs’ expense scandal broke a few months after the NDP took power, Premier Darrell Dexter’s petulant reaction demolished the NDP’s not-like-the-others image. Now, with the days running out on its first term, the NDP has begun pandering to public hostility toward politicians. They’ve made a big show of retroactively confiscating disgraced MLA Trevor Zinck’s pension—a matter that clearly ought to be decided in the courts. Now their caucus-attending speaker is retroactively applying rules that never existed to shame an opposition member who has nothing to be ashamed of. And the media scolds are delighted to pile on.
More to come. And after the jump, Nunn’s letter.